Is the Gospel of Mark Creatively Emulating Philo’s Life of Moses?

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by Neil Godfrey

Moses Jesus action figures

Did the Jewish philosopher Philo influence the story-line and character-portrayals that we read in the Gospel of Mark? I cannot yet commit myself to believing he did but I am keen to follow up the question since encountering it in Reimagining Christian Origins: A Colloquium Honoring Burton L. Mack. (Mack, of course, is famous for his works on Christian origins and particularly on the Gospel of Mark.) Specifically it was in chapter 11, “The Son of Timaeus: Blindness, Sight, Ascent, Vision in Mark” by Earle Hilgert. He writes on page 187:

Particularly in the thought of Philo of Alexandria (c. 20 B.C.E. to c. 50 C.E.) the myth of ascent vision combines with the epic figures of Israel’s history, who are seen as models of this experience. As models, they are to be imitated; thus their stories become stories of the psyche, paradigms of the possibilities available to the individual. Mack has pointed out a striking formal parallel between Philo’s De Vita Mosis and the Gospel of Mark.

The work by Mack cited here is “Imitatio Mosis: Patterns of Cosmology and Soteriology in the Hellenistic Synagogue,” Studia Philonica, 1 (1972): 34. Since I do not have access to this article I decided to refresh my memory of Philo’s Life of Moses and compare with the Gospel of Mark myself. But Earle Hilgert does give us a head start when he lists the main points of apparent contact between the two works according to Mack:

Life of Moses 1 Gospel of Mark
The call-vision of Moses at the burning bush (1.65-70) The call vision of Jesus at his baptism
The secret announcement to the elders of Israel of an impending departure to a better land (1.86) Jesus’ announcement of the kingdom
The legitimization of Moses’ authority through miracles (1.91-139) Jesus’ miracles
Moses’ ascent and admission to the presence of God on Sinai — a model for all who are willing to copy (1.158) Jesus’ transfiguration
The journey through wilderness with its trials (1.164, 171, 183) The journey to Jerusalem
Moses’ ascent to heaven at his death (2.288-91) melded with his ascent to the divine presence at Sinai Jesus’ paradigmatic death

That’s Burton Mack and Earle Hilgert. My own reflections follow. The purpose of the following is not to argue dogmatically a particular point. It is to invite anyone interested into a consideration of another way of thinking about an old question, and that need not be limited to a direct cause and effect option.

The first point of interest is Hilgert’s observation that Philo’s interest in writing about the lives of biblical heroes was to present readers with paradigmatic models to inspire them to pursue spiritual (cum philosophical) lives. There is nothing new in this observation of itself, but it is the first time I have thought of Philo’s interests in the context of the Gospel of Mark. There are many indicators throughout the Gospel that the narrative and characters are types of “parables”, symbolic foils and types fabricated to teach spiritual lessons to readers. This no longer seems such a radical notion at all when one stops to think that Philo (quite possibly overlapping the generation of the author of Mark) was composing narratives with a very similar purpose. Historical research was simply not on his radar. He makes it clear that his sources were twofold:

[I] shall proceed to narrate the events which befell [Moses], having learnt them both from those sacred scriptures . . . . and having also heard many things from the elders of my nation. (1.4)

Now are not these also the sources we see behind the Gospel of Mark? Most of the narrative details can be shown to be literary adaptations of the scriptures and it can be reasonably surmised that the author was creatively adapting what his peers were speculating or preaching. I’m not saying that Philo wrote symbolically. There certainly are major differences between the two works. But both did write creatively drawing on the scriptures and teachings of their day to produce creative works that appeared to have functioned as models for the edification of their readers.

When one begins to read the Life of Moses with the Gospel of Mark in mind it is not hard to see why the evangelist might have found this work of Philo to be an excellent model for a narrative about a figure (real or imagined — that’s not the question I’m addressing here) who was to be greater than all others who had ever lived.

I have conceived the idea of writing the life of Moses, who, according to the account of some persons, was the lawgiver of the Jews, but according to others only an interpreter of the sacred laws, the greatest and most perfect man that ever lived . . . (De Vita Mosis, 1.1)

Was Christianity known throughout the Roman empire when the Gospel was composed, though the figure of Christ much less known?

. . . . for the glory of the laws which he left behind him has reached over the whole world, and has penetrated to the very furthest limits of the universe; and those who do really and truly understand him are not many . . . .

One to evoke marvel and astonishment

Philo begins his account of Moses with the familiar story from Exodus of his birth, being found adrift in the Nile by Pharaoh’s daughter, and then details his growing years and the subjects he studied as he came to acquire wisdom and character above all others. Philo didactically dwells upon his accomplishments of self-control of both his body and mind. Finally, the end product of this earthly perfection received praise and awe in terms that we know well from the Gospels as applied to Jesus:

Very naturally, therefore, those who associated with him and every one who was acquainted with him marvelled at him, being astonished as at a novel spectacle, and inquiring what kind of mind it was that had its abode in his body, and that was set up in it like an image in a shrine; whether it was a human mind or a divine intellect, or something combined of the two; because he had nothing in him resembling the many, but had gone beyond them all and was elevated to a more sublime height. (1.27)

Compare Mark 1:22, 27-28; 2:12; 6:2; 6:51; 7:37; 9:15; 11:18

And they were astonished at his doctrine: for he taught them as one that had authority, and not as the scribes. . . . . And they were all amazed, insomuch that they questioned among themselves, saying, What thing is this? what new doctrine is this? for with authority commandeth he even the unclean spirits, and they do obey him. And immediately his fame spread abroad throughout all the region round about Galilee. . . .

they were all amazed, and glorified God, saying, We never saw it on this fashion.

and many hearing him were astonished, saying, From whence hath this man these things? and what wisdom is this which is given unto him, that even such mighty works are wrought by his hands?

they were sore amazed in themselves beyond measure, and wondered.

And were beyond measure astonished, saying, He hath done all things well: he maketh both the deaf to hear, and the dumb to speak.

when they beheld him, were greatly amazed

all the people was astonished at his doctrine.

Living entirely for the soul

Moses was the most ascetic of men.

And being in a most eminent degree a practiser of abstinence and self-denial, and being above all men inclined to ridicule a life of effeminacy and luxury (for he desired to live for his soul alone, and not for his body), he exhibited the doctrines of philosophy in all his daily actions, saying precisely what he thought, and performing such actions only as were consistent with his words, so as to exhibit a perfect harmony between his language and his life, so that as his words were such also was his life, and as his life was such likewise was his language, like people who are playing together in tune on a musical instrument.

This, of course, recalls the lifestyle of John the Baptist and is in contrast to Jesus’ way of life. Here, however, I believe the Gospel of Mark is presenting John as an ascetic as a representative of the best and highest form of life that could have been achieved through the religion (Philo would say “philosophy”) of Moses. Jesus is presented as a greater than Moses. Jesus is the very embodiment of the spiritual goal that Moses was living through much bodily and mental effort to bring his passions and thoughts into subjection. Jesus is the accomplishment of what Moses was seeking for eternity in his final rest from labour.

On the other hand, once Philo brings us to the main body of the Moses narrative we find that even Moses and his Israelites are fed abundantly in the wilderness.

And so having appeased their thirst with double pleasure, since the blessing of enjoyment when it comes beyond one’s hopes delights one still more, and having also replenished their ewers, they departed as from a feast, as if they had been entertained at a luxurious banquet, and as if they were intoxicated not with the drunkenness which proceeds from wine, but with a sober joy which they had imbibed purely, while pledging and being pledged by the piety of the ruler who was leading them (1.187)

Mark 2:18-19

And the disciples of John and of the Pharisees used to fast: and they come and say unto him, Why do the disciples of John and of the Pharisees fast, but thy disciples fast not? And Jesus said unto them, Can the children of the bridechamber fast, while the bridegroom is with them? as long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast.

Having left homes, living as sojourners

Philo’s portrayal of Jews as sojourners had a spiritual-philosophical ring to it: this life of the flesh was only a temporary passage through which one passed, ideally striving to attain perfection of mind and soul in order to find eternal bliss. We know the motif well enough from the New Testament’s account of the life of Christians.

the Jews were strangers in Egypt, the founders of their race having migrated from Babylon . . . . The men, therefore, who had left their homes and come into Egypt, as if they were to dwell in that land as in a second country (1.34, 36)

Mark 10: 28-29

Then Peter began to say unto him, Lo, we have left all, and have followed thee. And Jesus answered and said, Verily I say unto you, There is no man that hath left house, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for my sake, and the gospel’s . . .

The character of Moses and Jesus

Philo is teaching his readers philosophy or a way of life by means of a dramatic narrative. He draws out explicitly what motivated Moses, what his feelings were, why he acted this way or that — and the underlying reason is always some nobleness of thought or spirit.

Mark does nothing like this with Jesus, or at least very rarely does he directly inform us of the thoughts and feelings of Jesus. But a significant number of the acts and interactions of Jesus have their copy-cat counterparts in the Life of Moses. Did the evangelist expect readers to interpret these actions of Jesus through the philosophy of Moses?

For example, in Philo we read how patient Moses and his God were with the grumbling Israelites. The Israelites would always be losing faith and losing their cool but Moses, Philo informs us, was always the means by which God bestowed his infinite understanding and compassion. Jesus is just as patient with his dim-witted and faithless disciples. If Jesus is emulating Moses then perhaps the reader is expected to see the same loving patience in Jesus whenever he is dealing with blind and contrary human nature.

When they were lamenting and bewailing themselves in this manner, Moses again besought God, who knew the weakness of all creatures, and especially of men, and the necessary wants of the body which depends for its existence on food, and which is enslaved by those severe task-mistresses, eating and drinking, to pardon his desponding people, and to relieve their want of everything, and that too not after a long interval of time, but by a prompt and undeferred liberality, since by reason of the natural impotency of their mortal nature, they required a very speedy measure of assistance and deliverance. (185) But he, by his bountiful and merciful power, anticipated their wishes . . . (1.184)

Further, both Moses and Jesus are compared with physicians:

By using these charms [wise teachings for the rulers (to repent and be kind) and for the slaves (to repent and be patient)], as it were, like a good physician, he thought he should be able to alleviate their afflictions, although they were most grievous. (1.42)

Mark 2:17

When Jesus heard it, he saith unto them, They that are whole have no need of the physician, but they that are sick: I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.

Commentators have often remarked on the strange itinerary Jesus followed at one stage in Mark’s Gospel. He took the very long way around to get from Tyre to Galilee. (For the details, and an alternative explanation for this, see Mark: failed geography, but great bible student.) Is it accidental that this most counterintuitive route to Bethsaida — Mark 6:45 to 8:22 — coincides with the double-testing of the disciples? It is on this route that they are discovered to be doubly blind by failing twice to understand the miracle of the loaves, the power of Jesus, and at either end of which a symbolic double healing of blind men is performed.

Compare the reason for Moses taking his people on another very unlikely and round-about route:

Then he led them forward, not by the shortest road, partly because he was afraid lest . . . driven by their new foes upon their ancient tyrants, and so become a sport and a laughingstock to the Egyptians, and have to endure greater and more grievous hardships than before. [Is it coincidence that Jesus left with his disciples shortly after his forerunner John was executed?] He was also desirous, by leading them through a desolate and extensive country, to prove them, and see how obedient they would be when they were not surrounded by any abundance of necessaries, but were but scantily provided and nearly in actual want. (1.164)

Superior character will not allow him to remain hidden

Philo’s Moses was compelled to flee from the king of Egypt who wanted to kill him. Personal safety was reason enough for Moses to naturally desire to live a quiet and private life. But it was his loving nature, his desire to always act on behalf of the oppressed, that made this impossible.

Any one else, perhaps, fleeing from the implacable fury of the king, and coming now for the first time into a foreign land, when he had not as yet associated with or learnt the customs of the natives, and not knowing with any accuracy the objects in which they delighted or which they regarded with aversion, would have been desirous to enjoy tranquillity and to live in obscurity, escaping the notice of men in general; or else, if he had wished to come forward in public, he would have endeavoured by all means to propitiate the powerful men and those in the highest authority in the country by persevering attentions, as men from whom some advantage or assistance might be expected, if any pursuers should come after him and endeavour to drag him away by force.

But this man proceeded by the path which was the exact opposite of that which was the probable one for him to take, following the healthy impulses of his soul, and not allowing any one of them to be impeded in its progress. On which account, at times, with the fervour of youth, he attempted things beyond his existing strength; looking upon justice as an irresistible power, by which he was encouraged so as to go spontaneously to the assistance of the weaker side. (1.49-50)

If this theme finds any echo in Mark it may support the argument that Jesus sought to remain hidden so as to avoid the notice of hostile rulers before his time. This argument has been criticized on the grounds that Jesus is too quick to break such a rule. Does Philo’s Moses cast a light on this question?


. . . to be continued


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Neil Godfrey

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7 thoughts on “Is the Gospel of Mark Creatively Emulating Philo’s Life of Moses?”

  1. JW:
    I’ve previously indicated that I think “Mark’s” models for Jesus are:

    Teaching Ministry = Moses

    Healing Ministry = Elijah

    Passion Ministry = David

    Note that at the pivotal Greek Tragedy Recognition scene (Transfiguration) Moses and Elijah are invoked. After the turn to Jerusalem David is than invoked in the context of King(dumb). Now the demon IDs Jesus as the son of David (once he is “on the Way” to Jerusalem). The authority is always a Voice from Heaven as opposed to historical witness (think Pauline revelation). This is all Pauline. Start with your conclusion that Jesus’ Passion is what was important and than proof-text the Jewish Bible to construct your Jesus story.


  2. The Guild of New Testament Studies’ top scholars fully recognize that the Gospel of Mark is not a relaible source for knowledge of the man Jesus. Mark was written in the context of imaging the Christ of faith myth, to become the primary source for the later Gospels, making them unreliable sources as well.
    Mythicists, to justify legitimacy as critical historians, need to take account of the present most credible understanding of the Guild.

  3. “Mark was written in the context of imaging the Christ of faith myth, to become the primary source for the later Gospels, making them unreliable sources as well.”

    The problem for HJ goes beyond this. The subsequent Gospels (as well as Edited “Mark”) wanted to promote historical witness to Jesus. Their reliance on a basic Gospel narrative with the opposite theme suggests there was no historical witness available to those who wanted it.


  4. JW, See my comment: “A viable historical solution to the Jesus Puzzle – -“. The Guild now identifies the Sermon on the Mount to be our truest apostolic witness to Jesus and his teachings, an alternative to the writings of the NT.

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